When Ezra Koenig was a student at Columbia University, he wrote a short story set at a posh New England prep school. At the time, says Koenig, "I was really obsessed with boarding school as a concept." Middle-class and Jewish, he'd attended public high school in suburban New Jersey and was paying his way through college with a work-study job and "a buttload of student loans." To him, boarding school was a mysterious tradition from another time and tax bracket: "It seemed so . . . fantastical."
One day, in one of his creative-writing seminars, the class went around the room naming topics that interested them. Koenig said boarding school. "Someone was like, 'Oh, did you go to boarding school?'" he recalls. "And I realized, 'Oh, right! People actually do go to boarding school! It's not like Narnia!'"
Koenig, now 25, is the lead singer and guitarist of Vampire Weekend, and the latest in a line of cultural observers who took an up-close look at wealth and class – and had mixed feelings about what they saw. (See Fitzgerald, F. Scott.) His band-mates, all fellow Columbia grads – bassist Chris Baio, drummer Christopher Tomson and keyboardist-guitarist Rostam Batmanglij – come from relative comfort, the sons of attorneys and white-collar execs who grew up in the cul-de-sacs of Georgetown and Westchester. But for various reasons, they all sit uncomfortably with their social status – like accidental trespassers in the halls of privilege. "My family never had a lot of money," says Koenig. "It's weird to think that I grew up so much better off than my grandparents, or even my parents, but still occasionally feel like a country bumpkin."
On their 2008 debut, Vampire Weekend, Koenig sings about Cape Cod summers and blue-blooded babes, while dressing like Alex P. Keaton at a Young Republicans mixer. But their party-at-the-yacht-club vibe obscures the fact that songs like "Oxford Comma" and "One (Blake's Got a New Face)" are slyly mocking the affluent twentysomethings that Vampire Weekend are assumed to represent.
They might have been too subtle. Sometimes, the references to Hyannisport and Louis Vuitton fueled the perception that the bandmates themselves are bratty trust-funders. One critic sniffed that their globe-trotting indie pop "emit[ted] the putrescent stench of old money, of old politics, of old-guard high society."
"Sometimes I felt a little bummed," says Koenig. "To me it's very obvious that we're using satire and irony. But some people, when they hear a song called 'Oxford Comma' and that the guys who made it went to Columbia, all they can do is roll their eyes."
Vampire Weekend met eight years ago, as undergraduates at Columbia. Koenig and Batmanglij bonded over Radiohead at a party during freshman year and vowed to start a band one day. They recruited their friend Tomson, a Phish fanatic who played with Koenig in a jokey hip-hop group called L'Homme Run. Baio rounded out the group – the youngest, he was Koenig's suitemate sophomore year, and they shared a love of Destiny's Child.
Vampire Weekend played their first show in 2006, at a battle of the bands in a campus basement. They placed third out of four. Later that year, some of their demos appeared online, earning raves from sites like Stereogum and Pitchfork. Before they knew it, they were selling out shows and appearing on the cover of Spin without even having released an album. Their debut arrived in January 2008, and by the end of the year they'd performed on SNL, played for 40,000 fans at England's Glastonbury festival and sold nearly half a million albums.
The group made its name with tight, buoyant songs that crisscrossed the globe for inspiration, from Puerto Rican reggaeton (Tomson jokes that it's his "signature drumbeat") to accordion music from Madagascar. "Part of it came from working at WKCR," says Tomson, who volunteered at the Columbia student radio station. "There was a great African show, and a really incredible library of stuff you could take and listen to in your room." Their new album, Contra, continues the ethno-pop borrowing – "I think there are points where there's even more explicit African inspiration," Tomson says – and features songs about diplomats' children and skiing in the Alps. Of course, this will only cement the impression that Vampire Weekend are too preppy for rock & roll. "People are going to say our new album sucks too," Baio says. "I'm ready for it."
For all the divisiveness Vampire Weekend have inspired, they remain surprisingly grounded, and almost pathologically polite. Baio shares a modest Brooklyn apartment with the girlfriend he's been with since freshman year; Tomson rents the same room he lived in before getting signed, a laundry-strewn, seven-by-seven-foot shoe box with a framed copy of the Grateful Dead's Workingman's Dead on the wall.
One night we're drinking beer at a homey Brooklyn bar, I'm short $20, but there's no ATM. "I can lend you some cash if you want," Koenig says.
Batmanglij chimes in: "We can all lend you some."
Baio: "I've got $10."
Batmanglij: "I have $13."
Koenig reaches into his pocket and hands over a wrinkled 20. "Here," he says cheerfully. "You can just owe me."
On a rainy Tuesday afternoon, Koenig is riding home in a taxi. Cruising through Brooklyn, he spies the building that Jay-Z ID'd as his former stash spot in "Empire State of Mind." Koenig points excitedly: "560 State Street!"
Spend some time with Koenig, and this will happen a lot. Over the next few hours he'll hold forth on a dizzying variety of arcane subjects: reality star Spencer Pratt ("He's a fascinating person, an important cultural figure, and I'm not saying this ironically"); the lyrics of Elvis Costello's "The Loved Ones" ("'Spare us the theatrics and the verbal gymnastics/We break wiseguys just like matchsticks' – those are total rap lyrics!"); the Yiddish word chazerai ("It means 'pig fat,' but you use it to describe 'bullshit'"). Sticking out of his pocket is a paperback copy of Jim Carroll's druggy memoir The Basketball Diaries. Koenig read it in high school, but when Carroll died in September, he decided to revisit it. "I didn't remember how young he was," he says. "He was, like, 13 – fucking girls, doing heroin. It's pretty exciting!"
Koenig lives in Brooklyn's Boerum Hill neighborhood, in a duplex he shares with two roommates. The place is palatial for post-collegiate New York, but by rock-star standards it's kind of a fixer-upper. A creaky staircase leads down to Koenig's messy room, and the upstairs shelves are crammed with books: Beckett, Nabokov and his favorite, Evelyn Waugh. (For Halloween one year he dressed up as Sebastian, the drunken aristocrat from Brideshead Revisited. Everyone thought he was a cricket player.)
Koenig kicks off his duck boots and plops down on the couch. He's tall and patrician-looking, with the expressive features of a 1920s film star. A fifth-generation New Yorker, he was born on Manhattan's Upper West Side when it was still the boho-liberal enclave of Nora Ephron books and Annie Hall. His parents lived there in what he calls "post-hippie domesticity" – Fela Kuti on the stereo, Moosewood Cookbook in the kitchen. His family-therapist mom studied Buddhism and taught yoga, and his dad was a photographer's assistant and movie-set dresser (he worked on Malcolm X and Requiem for a Dream) who dabbled in guitar. Once, when Ezra's mom was pregnant, someone asked his father what he wanted for his son. His answer: "I hope he has a nice girlfriend and a band."
When Ezra was two, his family moved to the Jersey suburbs, to a town called Glen Ridge. He was one of the only Jewish kids at his school, a fact that caused him no shortage of angst. (Koenig still remembers throwing a fit in first grade when his teacher made the class color pictures of the Easter Bunny.) When it came time for his bar mitzvah, 13-year-old Ezra was too embarrassed to invite any of his friends. "Fine, we can have a party," he told his parents. "You can invite, like, Grandma."
In high school, Koenig turned these feelings of alienation into an aesthetic. "I used to think Polo was really lame," he says. But when he discovered that Ralph Lauren was born Ralph Lifshitz, the son of a Russian-immigrant house painter in the North Bronx, those tee-time-at-the-country-club get-ups suddenly felt kind of subversive. He bought his first Polo shirt at a Congregational Church rummage sale, and soon he was rocking so much Lacoste that a teacher told him he looked "like the bad guy from a John Hughes movie."
Koenig's Hamptons-chic vibe went on to become a key part of the VW brand; rarely does a write-up fail to mention their cardigans or boat shoes. But to Koenig, it's about more than just a look. "I'm hesitant to talk about it, because then it seems like Vampire Weekend is this big conceptual project," he says. "But around the time the band started, I became very interested in the connection between preppy American fashion and Victorian imperialism. For instance: Where does the word 'khaki' come from? It's Urdu. Where does 'seersucker' come from? Hindi-slash-Persian. Madras prints? They're from India. Blazers? They were a British naval uniform." (Koenig, who taught English at a Brooklyn middle school, has a tendency to switch into lecture mode.)
"Now obviously that was a very fucked-up time period," he continues. "But there's something exciting about realizing that these clothes that have come to represent WASPy Americans, the pinnacle of whiteness, actually have their roots in India or the non-Western world. They have this fascinating history flowing through them. Preppiness is this wide-open thing."
This kind of geocultural dot-connecting could be Vampire Weekend's mission statement. Their first album cherry-picked styles from all over the globe: Congolese soukous, Ghanaian highlife, Jamaican ska, Dominican bachata. It was like a souvenir mixtape from the coolest study-abroad semester ever – a lively, off-kilter sound they dubbed "Upper West Side Soweto." ("Which I regret," Koenig says.)
To some, the band members were indie-rock colonialists, plundering Third World styles for their own gain. But for Koenig, who studied the semiotics of post-colonial literature, concepts like purism and authenticity are as outdated as a land line. Everything is intertwined, he says, and "polar opposites don't exist." Start seeing the connections, and "the idea of fusion – of mixing things – seems less and less like a novelty, and more just the way the world works."
If Koenig is Vampire Weekend's analytical left brain, Batmanglij is its abstract, artistic right. On a November morning, he answers the door to his apartment in jeans and a light-blue oxford with paisley patches on the elbows. In his living room, a knock-off Verner Panton chair sits in front of a small upright piano, and Japanese subway maps adorn the walls. Batmanglij just got home from the gym, and he's feeling a little lightheaded. "Do you want something to drink?" he asks as he fills a wineglass with water. Meeting him is like visiting your very sweet, very attentive grandmother: Can I get you anything to eat? I'm going to have some water, would you like some water? Do you want a banana?
Batmanglij grew up in Washington, D.C., the son of Persian immigrants who fled Iran shortly before the 1979 revolution. Now his parents own a small publishing house whose motto is "Bridging East and West." His mom's Persian cookbooks are their biggest sellers.
A creative kid with an inquisitive streak, Batmanglij learned to play the flute at age seven, and later mastered the piano, violin, guitar, banjo and Persian tar. "Anything you put in front of me, I can make some kind of sound out of," he says. His tastes are omnivorous: One minute he'll be gushing about Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," the next he'll declare Sublime's 40 Oz. to Freedom "fucking awesome." A tireless polymath, he has a hand in nearly every aspect of the band, from producing to designing the artwork.
Batmanglij is also gay, a fact he's never really discussed publicly. His friends have known since college, but he didn't come out to his parents until about two years ago. (Asked how they handled the news, he laughs: "My dad went to British boarding school. You don't get much gayer than that.") A self-described homebody, he was in a pretty serious relationship last winter, but they split up a few weeks into the recording of the album. "I tried everything to get him back," Batmanglij says. "He broke my heart."
To cope, Batmanglij threw himself into his work, clocking 15-hour days at Vampire Weekend's new studio. Their first album was recorded piecemeal, in Columbia music rooms and Tomson's parents' barn in Imlaystown, New Jersey. But for Contra, they went pro – setting up shop at Treefort Studios, a renovated storage space in industrial Brooklyn, and logging time at Manhattan's Avatar, where Bruce Springsteen recorded Born in the U.S.A. Where their debut often sounded like four guys jamming in a room while one of them pressed record, Contra sparkles with studio wizardry: shimmery synths, gee-whiz samplers, even some Auto-Tune. "Our first record kind of has one vibe, one tone," says Baio. The new one, Batmanglij says, "goes in a thousand places at once."
Familiar themes prevail – rich girls, exotic locales. (Koenig wanted to call it either Paper Chase or Young Money.) The cover photo teases the band's yuppie reputation: a Reagan-era Polaroid of a blonde in a yellow Polo. But there's also a newfound compassion. Take "Diplomat's Son," which is inspired by that boarding-school story Koenig wrote. The original is an angry parable of class tension and resentment that culminates in a bloody beat-down on a soccer field. Batmanglij took it and made it a love story. "After you leave college, the world opens up," Koenig says. "For this record, I wanted there to be songs that everybody could understand."
Contra's title has been interpreted as a reference to everything from Nicaraguan counter-revolutionaries to the Eighties arcade game. One night at a bar, Koenig elaborates: "Basically, a contra is anybody you try to frame as your opposite – as not a part of your world. It's setting up a dichotomy. You can talk about people in very nuanced, compassionate ways – or you can be like, 'I'm liberal; that person is not. I'm for real; that person is a sellout.'"
Vampire Weekend being Vampire Weekend, the conversation soon moves to Hegel-contra-Marx and the Hegelian dialectic – the philosophical formulation that begins with a thesis, is challenged, and ultimately resolves into a conciliatory third way. "We talked about those ideas a little," Koenig says. "Not that we were having, like, a philosophical book club. In the dialectic, 'contra' is most similar to the word 'antithesis.' It's the opposite of what came before. But the idea of synthesis is, things that seem like opposites are actually deeply related." Everything is mixed up. Polar opposites don't exist.
"So Contra implies conflict," Koenig says. "But ultimately, I'd like to think the album is more about . . ."
Smiling, Batmanglij finishes his thought. "Resolution," he says.
This story is from the February 4th, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone.